“Binged Making a Murderer? Try . . . [this] riveting portrait of a tragic, preventable crime.” —Entertainment Weekly
Finalist for the Edgar Award for Best Fact Crime
Finalist for the Dayton Literary Peace Prize
A Pulitzer Prize–winning reporter’s gripping account of one young man’s path to murder—and a wake-up call for mental health care in America
On a summer night in 2009, three lives intersected in one American neighborhood. Two people newly in love—Teresa Butz and Jennifer Hopper, who spent many years trying to find themselves and who eventually found each other—and a young man on a dangerous psychological descent: Isaiah Kalebu, age twenty-three, the son of a distant, authoritarian father and a mother with a family history of mental illness. All three paths forever altered by a violent crime, all three stories a wake-up call to the system that failed to see the signs.
In this riveting, probing, compassionate account of a murder in Seattle, Eli Sanders, who won a Pulitzer Prize for his newspaper coverage of the crime, offers a deeply reported portrait in microcosm of the state of mental health care in this country—as well as an inspiring story of love and forgiveness. Culminating in Kalebu’s dangerous slide toward violence—observed by family members, police, mental health workers, lawyers, and judges, but stopped by no one—While the City Slept is the story of a crime of opportunity and of the string of missed opportunities that made it possible. It shows what can happen when a disturbed member of society repeatedly falls through the cracks, and in the tradition of The Other Wes Moore and The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace, is an indelible, human-level story, brilliantly told, with the potential to inspire social change.
A killing spotlights the inadequacy of America's mental health system in this gripping true-crime saga. Pulitzer Prize winning journalist Sanders explores Isaiah Kalebu's 2009 assault of Theresa Butz and Jennifer Hopper, who were engaged to be married, in their Seattle home. An ordeal of rape and bloodshed lead to Butz's death. Sanders sketches a moving portrait of the victims and then focuses on the dark odyssey of their attacker, the son of a Ugandan immigrant who inherited mental illness on his mother's side and grew up in a household rocked by domestic violence. Kalebu spiraled into violent psychosis: he attacked his mother and once walked into a random business office, announced he was an African king, and fired the staff. The real villains, in Sanders's telling, are Washington State's courts and mental health system, which were hamstrung by budget cuts and failed to treat or control Kalebu's worsening behavior. Drawing on interviews with principal figures and their families, Sanders's meticulous narrative gives full weight to Kalebu's crime while elucidating the human tragedy that sparked it, forming a disturbing indictment of society's neglect of the mentally ill.
I am not a big fan of this genre, but I was really captivated by this story. What happened to Theresa and Jennifer is truly horrifying. And I appreciated the author's telling of both their story and the circumstances that may have propelled Isaiah to murder these women. The book definitely made me think about the crisis facing the mentally ill, which I think was the point.
However for a casual reader like me, I really wanted the payoff of what exactly happened, which it did, sort of. What made the first half of the book so fascinating was the detail of this Seattle community and how these three lives intersected.
However, towards the end, I felt like the author got in the way of the story, especially when we get to Jennifer's testimony. His summarizing and re-summarizing and his insights into what he thought made the climax of the book unsatisfactory. I can tell Eli felt strongly for his subjects, but he got tripped up. I just wish he had just recounted Jennifer's testimony. I waited for that moment when she told her story and it went flat. I know that seems harsh considering her horrible ordeal. But I think he tried to speak for her and did not let her just speak.
I still highly recommend this book. But for this genre, it did not quite hit the highs of others. It's a shame because I think Jennifer and Isaiah had more insight to give us.